George CatlinIn our world of rapidly changing information in which there is a veritable deluge of new data every hour on the hour, it's reassuring to find a reference source still considered quite valuable today that is over 150 years old. What John James Audubon was to birds, George Catlin was to Native Americans. This self-taught portrait artist from Philadelphia lived and painted amongst 48 different Native American groups, rendering some 200 different scenes and over 310 portraits of chiefs. As if the numbers weren't impressive enough, his collection of art and artefacts would fill a museum. And the reason his work is considered such a valuable anthropological source today, is that many of the groups he studied and depicted simply don't exist anymore. In many areas of Native American studies, his work is not just the best source, it's unfortunately, about the only source available.
Catlin was born in 1796 and at the age of 36 was one of the first artists to travel west of the Mississippi. In 1839, after spending some seven years in the wilderness he brought back his "Indian Gallery" in an attempt to enlighten the civilised "east" as to the soulful beauty, simple integrity, and epic determination of Native American peoples, only to be refused museum space by the U.S. government. Smarting from this rejection, he retaliated by taking his work on tour to France and England where the exotic, "noble savage" element struck a responsive cord amongst the Romantic Era artists and intellectual elite, not to mention the merely curious European public.
One of Catlin's most interesting portraits bears the title Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe. Coming from one of the few experts on Native American languages of the time, we have to take his word regarding the exact translation of the Blackfoot chief's name. The image is as authentic as the name. From the braided porcupine quills to the hand-carved, red-stone pipe bowl, the portrait is primitive in neither style nor content. The chief radiates a quiet dignity as awe-inspiring as a Gilbert Stuart Washington or a Rembrandt guildsman. This work prompted the French artist Rosa Bonheur to make a pencil and watercolour copy and a London publisher to sponsor an ensemble of some twenty-five hand-coloured lithographs with additional text. A year later, he also published Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. At a time when the Romantic element flourished in both art and literature in Europe, the book instead contained over 300 realistic illustrations so authentic as to be as much anthropology as art.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
30 May 1998